Monday, March 29, 2010


(Washington Post) By William Booth

As Haitians deal with the psychological aftershocks of the devastating earthquake, city dwellers here -- prominent and poor alike -- confess they continue to harbor deep anxieties about entering buildings constructed of concrete.

Their fears, as it turns out, are entirely rational.

International engineers inspecting buildings in the rubble-strewn capital have found that houses and offices in Haiti suffered catastrophic damage mainly because they were poorly constructed -- made with a weak cement and lacking proper steel reinforcements, in a country where the government never enforced building codes.

Haitian President René Préval has said he is scared to sleep inside. The National Palace collapsed in spectacular fashion, and his own private home lies in ruins. Préval is staying with friends until he can move to an earthquake-resistant structure."Like you, I am nervous," he told reporters.

Later he explained, "Port-au-Prince was not well built."

Many people continue to sleep outdoors, fearful even of homes with only cracked walls. Their anxiety poses a challenge for aid workers and government officials who want Haitians to return to structurally sound, though damaged, homes.

Haitians are especially wary of entering large concrete structures. Since the Jan. 12 quake, which killed an estimated 200,000 people, many parents have balked at sending their children back to schools built of concrete. Some patients ask to see doctors in hospital courtyards because they don't trust the buildings.

Eduardo Marques Almeida, head of the Haitian office of the Inter-American Development Bank, remembers being in the bank's hilltop headquarters when the earthquake struck. The damaged building is now abandoned. He conducts his meetings under a mango tree because many of his staff members refuse to enter the bank's other, still sound offices, for fear they could collapse in an aftershock."We're going to tear them all down and rebuild, or else nobody will work inside," Almeida said.

In a confidential memo circulated among its employees in Haiti, the United Nations mission recommended that they stay out of concrete structures and offered suggestions on how to politely decline to attend meetings in buildings they deemed dubious.

For only the second time since the earthquake, Hiclair Siclait, 70, opened the door to his concrete home recently and entered hesitantly. "When the earthquake happened, I saw the roof going up and down." He rocked back and forth to simulate the motion.

Ever since, Siclait has lived in the streets under a tarp with his wife, four sons and two daughters. "I am afraid to sleep inside. If I find a tent, I will sleep on the roof," he said. "I think after a few months I might come back. With time, I might be less afraid. You never know."

There is a saying among engineers that earthquakes do not kill people -- buildings kill people, said Dennis Smith, a structural engineer with the U.S. Naval Facilities Engineering Command. "And the buildings here were badly constructed. They failed for a reason."

Escorted by a platoon of U.S. Army airborne, Smith and a team of Haitian engineers went house by house in Port-au-Prince's Turgeau neighborhood, an eclectic mix of old French Caribbean wooden dwellings and newer concrete-block construction. The concrete buildings fared worse.

Haitian and U.S. engineers inspecting the 225,000 dwellings and 20,000 offices that the Haitian government estimates were damaged or destroyed say that much of the catastrophic damage could have been averted if concrete masonry had been reinforced-- one of the most basic rules of engineering.

"Simple things caused collapse," said Soon-Min Kwon, a project manager with the earthquake engineering firm Miyamoto, which is based in California. Kwon said columns, for example, were not properly wrapped with steel rods, or the rods were too thin, or the columns were not properly connected to the floors they were supposed to support.

"If there is a building code, we haven't been able to find it," said Vince Sobash, an engineer who works for the U.S. Navy, who was training a group of Haitian engineers how to rate houses for earthquake damage. 'We need rules'

In Haiti, the poorest country in the hemisphere, most homeowners cobbled their houses together themselves block by block or paid a small-time contractor, who might have relied on tradition more than engineering.

For example, thinking they were making houses stronger, many homeowners made their concrete floors thicker, and thereby heavier, and did not properly use reinforcing steel bars, known as rebar. As they made more money, owners often added floors, and many of those two- and three-story buildings pancaked.

"I also think that a lot of the landlords were cheap with cement and did not build the houses strong because it costs them a little more money," said Oreste Joseph, a Haitian who once taught math and civics in Boston and was running a computer literacy school in his house. He pointed across the street to a collapsed four-story house that had been a warren of rented rooms. Joseph said 50 people had died inside. "We need rules and people need to follow them," he said."

There was no government oversight of construction, of the materials or the engineering," said Philippe Jourdain, a local architect. "Yes, you had to get a permit. Yes, somebody from the government came by your house. But not to inspect. To get paid something. It was a greedy adventure."

In planning meetings here, engineers envision a two-tiered system: one with strict international standards, with seismic protections for larger structures, and a simple but enforceable code for houses -- a five-page illustrated booklet that at least shows the proper way to use reinforcing steel bars to support columns and floors.

Many builders here skimped on cement in the concrete mix and block fabrication, producing concrete that crumbled and exposed steel rebar to the elements. The cement itself was also especially poor.

Haiti's government has now banned the commonly used sand quarried from the hillsides and recommended that builders use riverbed sand, though it is impossible to know whether this will be enforced."Poor people deserve decent engineering, too," said Leslie Voltaire, an architect and planner here.

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